Denise Réaume, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

In the blogosphere, we’re advised not to respond to outrageous comments. "Don't feed the trolls" we're told; "they’re only trying to get a rise out of you"; "ignore them and they'll go away". Good advice, when the troll is an angry misfit holed up in his basement, but when the troll happens to be the Prime Minister, what's one to do? It should be obvious by now that Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative Party are exploiting the niqab issue to play to their political base and attract a few votes by stoking fear and division.

One wants to respond with rational argument. The arguments are straightforward. One wants to call the Prime Minister on his hypocrisy. His government’s record of anti-woman policies is clear.

Response seems necessary, but there is reason to fear that any response, no matter how measured and sound, risks feeding the trolls. Every plea for greater understanding, every appeal to our better nature, every effort to set the record straight is used to as evidence that the “barbarians” are not merely at the gates, but have breached them. Already the Prime Troll has announced an intention to ban niqab-wearing women from public service jobs.

And yet, we must respond. Ignoring him isn't going to make this troll go away. This troll has the authority and resources of the federal government at his disposal. This troll gets his ugly musings published on the front page of every media outlet in the country. This troll’s musings give licence to trollish behaviour in others.  And if we ignore him, this troll will be reelected. When the Prime Minister behaves like the Prime Troll, it is time for all Canadians who believe in decency and civil discourse to stand up and demand an end to this, whatever their views on the niqab.

Because this isn’t about the niqab. We’ve seen these arguments before. Too many times, in fact.

Women were once chastised for working outside the home or, heaven forbid, wearing trousers, both deemed a threat marriage and family. More recently came warnings that protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination or recognizing same sex marriage would jeopardize children and, again, destroy the family. Canadian civilization would crumble if Sikh RCMP officers wear turbans. The wellbeing of society required residential schools to educate the “Indian” out of Aboriginal children. If Chinese immigrants were admitted to citizenship they would take over. The response to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe was that “none is too many” to admit to Canada because they were unassimilable. Communists had to be spied on and hounded out of their jobs for fear of their being Soviet moles. Jehovah’s Witnesses would destroy Quebec’s social fabric.

Fear and mistrust of the other, of social change, may always be with us. A civilized society is on guard against the exploitation of these feelings. But the present government feeds misunderstanding and fear for its own ends. No democracy can tolerate such dangerous cynicism. It isn't niqabi women who are the threat to Canadian civilization, it is the trollish behaviour of the Conservatives. We must all send a message to the Prime Troll: no troll is fit to hold public office in Canada.